On White House Policy Issues, Pence Plays the Role of Decoder

At the Munich Security Conference in February, the face of the Trump administration was Vice President Mike Pence, who urged longstanding American allies to pull out of a denuclearization deal with Iran.

When President Trump needed an emissary to describe his proposed tax overhaul in 2017, Mr. Pence was deployed to more than 50 events, meeting with small groups of business owners to promote the bill’s benefits.

And as the president seeks to persuade farmers and manufacturers to get behind his revamped North American Free Trade Agreement, he will dispatch Mr. Pence to travel to the industrial Midwest to make the case to voters in moderate districts.

More than halfway into Mr. Trump’s term, he and Mr. Pence have developed what aides describe as a rhythm, in which the president lays out the broad contours of policy and then hands off to the vice president to make the granular sales pitch.

“The vice president is the comforter in chief,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded with money from the billionaire Koch brothers. “He makes people feel better as he explains the administration’s policies, even if you disagree with the policy.”

The Trump administration is often criticized for clumsy policy rollouts, with the president road-testing concepts publicly before they can be properly vetted or developed. Once aides have fleshed out a policy proposal, Mr. Trump tends to speak of it in the broadest of strokes. And he infrequently holds a series of events related to a specific policy, usually mentioning topics during rallies instead.

In a White House with a revolving door of top officials and a president who is often focused on his own message, it is often left to Mr. Pence — who has ties to the traditional conservative movement — to try to clarify the administration’s approach on key issues.

That has created tense moments with congressional officials, like when the government shut down late last year. Mr. Pence made repeated trips to Capitol Hill and hosted lawmakers at the White House as they tried to find a solution to the impasse over the president’s demand for $5 billion for a border wall. Underscoring that Mr. Pence does not always help conceive policy before he makes the case for it, Mr. Trump publicly rejected a compromise to end the shutdown that Mr. Pence had floated to Democrats.

Earlier last year, Mr. Pence met with leaders of Central American nations to push them to stop their citizens from illegally crossing into the United States. Mr. Pence warned officials from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that the United States would stop sending some aid if they did not do more.

Privately, several Republican donors have made it clear to administration allies that they want to hear more about policy from a White House where the dominant story line has been Mr. Trump’s unconventional approach to the presidency. Ideally, they would like for Mr. Trump to be that messenger: They note that Mr. Pence may be an explainer, but he is not a decision maker in the White House on policy.

Still, the role Mr. Pence plays has been a comfort to Republicans, particularly those for whom policy is a vital aspect of conservatism.

David McIntosh, the president of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, said Mr. Pence had been crucial in persuading wavering House members to back Mr. Trump’s push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though the effort failed in the Senate.

“It goes back to during the campaign,” Mr. McIntosh said of Mr. Pence’s ability to bring calm to policy-focused conservatives trying to make sense of an atypical Republican nominee.

He said that he and other conservatives decided they could support the Republican ticket once Mr. Pence was chosen as Mr. Trump’s running mate. Repeatedly during the campaign, Mr. McIntosh said, his office would approach Mr. Pence to find out whether a declaration Mr. Trump made on the stump would be turned into policy if he were elected.

Mr. Pence, who in 2016 was a bridge between the campaign and evangelical voters, has also been the administration’s liaison at more politically sensitive moments. After the White House drew criticism for its response to the arson attacks at three historic African-American churches in Louisiana, it was Mr. Pence who appeared in front of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on Friday.

“Sadly, we live in a time when attacks on communities of faith have become all too frequent,” he said, standing among local officials and leaders. “What happened here at Mount Pleasant, at Greater Union, at St. Mary’s was evil, but these communities of faith have overcome evil with good.”

He was well received there, and thanked for the effort.

But that has not always been the case. Outside Republican circles, Mr. Pence’s ability to be the administration’s spokesman has been more challenging.

At the Munich conference, for instance, the assembled world leaders applauded Mr. Pence when he said the president was working to “strengthen America’s military might and to strengthen the leadership of the free world.”

But he was greeted with stony, uncomfortable silence when he delivered another line: “I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

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